David Coppedge worked for 14 years as an information technology specialist and system administrator for the Cassini mission to Saturn, operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California under a contract with NASA. Cassini was regarded by many as the most ambitious interplanetary exploration mission ever launched. Coppedge served as the mission’s “Team Lead” System Administrator for nine years. In this position, he and his team managed the computers that sent and received messages from the Cassini spacecraft. Coppedge was a valued JPL employee who received positive performance reviews.
That is, until his supervisors censored, disciplined, demoted, and ultimately terminated him after he shared ideas that superiors labeled “unwelcome” and “disruptive.” What was so disruptive that it entailed punishing a long-standing and faithful employee? Coppedge occasionally loaned Illustra Media DVDs about intelligent design to co-workers who expressed an interest in watching them (Coppedge served as a member of Illustra Media’s board of directors). After one co-worker complained, a supervisor called Coppedge into a meeting where Coppedge says he was berated for believing in intelligent design and warned that he was not allowed “to discuss religion or politics with anyone in this office or it will be difficult for you to maintain employment in this organization.” This was despite the fact that other employees according to Coppedge were allowed to freely express their views on a variety of non-work topics. “In fact my own boss, to a captive audience, in our staff meetings each week would show political cartoons, and some of them had a particular political bent to them,” he recalled. Although Coppedge complied with the one-sided gag order, administrators gave him a written warning after a secretive investigation, removed him as Team Lead, and issued a very negative annual review. Believing he was being treated unfairly, he filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against JPL in 2010. The next year JPL terminated him. His discharge looked like blatant retaliation, although JPL maintained otherwise.
Coppedge lost his lawsuit in 2012, and he ended up paying over $100,000 in legal fees and court costs. A few days before the court’s ruling against him, he also was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer.
Coppedge survived his bout with cancer, and he has not allowed his experience to silence him from speaking out about intelligent design. He continues to serve on the board of the pro-intelligent design film company Illustra Media, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017.